Escape from hell: The refugees risking everything to stowaway to Britain
CALAIS, France — You can somehow feel the tension build up around mid-afternoon in the Calais Jungle. You see young men suddenly shouting out. People start running. It's beginning.
Some 6,000 refugees and migrants — most from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Eritrea —live in the makeshift camp in northwest France near the port of Calais and the tunnel that leads to the UK.
Elevated on the embankment above the sea of mud-spattered tents like a festival gone wrong, the young men are charging along the fence.
The fence, it is all about the fence.
Twelve feet high and tight mesh it cannot be climbed. A group of migrants is attempting to cut a hole.
Front entrance of Jungle now pic.twitter.com/INQXEhny5Y
— alex thomson (@alextomo) November 26, 2015
A cheer goes up. Success. Silhouettes against the low sun of four or five young men who have somehow climbed on top of a moving truck.
Sandwiched between the unit and attempting to get onto the trailer and then somehow into it.
It's fantastically dangerous but they are there at least. For now, they are one step ahead of the thousands or so left behind in the slimy mud and filth of the Jungle. If they can hide somewhere on that truck for long enough, they'll reach the ultimate prize after the weeks and months of travel — the UK.
That afternoon, for a few moments, the French riot police have been caught on the hop.
Wooden pallets have been flung onto the motorway by some of the camp's residents to slow the pace of the giant trucks so that they become runnable or jumpable.
Within minutes, volleys of teargas are being fired off by the riot squads. Yet still the refugees and migrants charge up from their tents to the carriageway, risking their lives for a new life better than this.
Latest from the m- way at Calais pic.twitter.com/znSuH21s78
— alex thomson (@alextomo) November 26, 2015
Another cheer goes up as a truck rolls past, back doors of its trailer open, having been forced by another group of would-be travellers to the UK further back down the road.
The driver, of course, has no idea until flagged down and informed by the riot cops strung out across the carriageway as the trucks begin to creep forward once again.
Up on the embanked motorway a fog of blue haze now hangs over the camp — police gas.
We come across a car on the long line of static articulated lorries.
"Are you ok?" We ask two British women heading home.
"Yes but this is a bit off isn't it?" They reply.
Not unreasonable an assessment at being brought to a halt in a fog of teargas with shouting young French police men in riot gear and shouting young men not in riot gear speaking in Arabic, Urdu, Farsi and Pashto.
With the weird haze hanging over the camp you can't escape the feeling, however unfair, that it looks all too much like collective punishment for the several thousand here rather than the few hundred who tried to make a run for it this afternoon.
Pushed off the road and back into the camp by the gas, there is a long and ugly stand-off.
Residents of the camp climb the fence on Nov. 7.
Image: Danilo Balducci/SINTESI/SIPA/Associated Press
Incoming stones thrown by men in the camp are met with yet more gas rounds fired into this muddy, cold, tented disaster zone.
As the violence erupted in the late afternoon, we had been filming a story for Channel 4 News about another reason to try to escape from this hell: scabies.
In a battered caravan in a stinking pool of liquified mud, Shakir Javed runs a first aid post.
"I have 14 years experience in Pakistan and I can cope with everything. Well not heart or head but pretty much everything," he confidently explains to us.
Conditions at the camp have deteriorated.
Image: Rex Features/Associated Press
He too is a migrant trying to get to the UK as they all are here. But scabies has even him defeated.
"We can stop the itching but I am afraid we cannot stop it spreading. Not here. Not in this place. People are living in filthy tents close to each other. They are not wearing clean clothes. It spreads everywhere."
A French first-aid worker delivers medical supplies, wading through the mud-pool:
"Oh yes - I have scabies . We all do. It is everywhere but it's just a bit of itching."
Possibly scabies is "just a bit of itching" if you are a young, healthy northern-European living a hygienic non-chaotic lifestyle with a robust immune system. Just possibly.
In the Jungle though it's a fast-track to open sores, sepsis and who knows what else this winter.
A fast-track too to do whatever it takes to get out of this place. The riot cops will make no difference. The fences will be overcome or gone round somehow. Anything, anything to get aboard a truck.
Because disease is now another factor making "life" in the Jungle next to intolerable for so many who have come so far.
Alex Thomson is Chief Correspondent at Channel 4 News. In more than 25 years, he's covered over 20 wars; led major investigations and continues to front the program from around the world. An award-winning journalist, he has written two books about the 1991 Gulf War and a travelogue about cycling across India.
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